The wettest year on record and a soggier than average start to 2019 are still not enough to douse the potential flames of the 2019 wildfire season.
“It has been wet. We enter spring and the fire season in good shape. ... However, the Pinelands can dry out very quickly,” said Dave Robinson, the New Jersey State Climatologist.
The sandy soil of the Pine Barrens allows water to drain right through without much flash flooding. However, that also helps keep the wildfire threat elevated, regardless of prior conditions.
The peak of wildfire season is around the corner as the sun gets higher and the temperatures warm up.
To prep for the season, prescribed burns done by the New Jersey Forest Fire Service have dotted South Jersey with smoke this year. The burns are done to reduce the amount of forest-floor fuel, thereby preventing a wildfire from occurring or spreading.
As of Mar. 21, about 772 acres have burned this year in Atlantic County, 118 acres in Cape May County and 1,895 acres in Cumberland County.
Joel Mott, principal public programs specialist for the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, says controlled burns are extremely important for those living in the Pinelands.
The burns allow the region to maintain the balance that preserves its characteristics and allows for people to live safely in close proximity to forest areas.
“A soaking rain one week, followed by windy, dry and perhaps even warm conditions can lead to a fire threat in a week or two,” Robinson said.
Kenneth Clark, research forester for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, said personal experience has taught him that wildfire conditions can develop quickly.
“When I first got here, I was told that it could literally rain in the morning and there could be a wildfire in the afternoon. I didn’t believe it, but now I do,” Clark said.
During the wildfire season, especially in the late-April to mid-May time period, it comes down more to the distribution of precipitation. Clark said rain falling at frequent intervals helps keep the ground saturated enough that winds or the sun can’t dry it out.
According to Robinson, the state averaged 64.79 inches of precipitation in 2018, the most in 124 years of record keeping. Hammonton measured 71.03 inches, nearly 6 feet, beating the old record by nearly 3 inches.
While the upcoming forest fire season will not be impacted much by the past 15-month deluge, it does help with the controlled burns.
The extra rain and higher fuel moisture could allow firefighters to burn closer to developments that otherwise would not have been permitted to burn, Clark said.
It also means more opportunity for controlled burning.
“Two or three days of dry, sunny and windy conditions are all you need to do a control burn,” he said.